Sleep Paralysis

Continuing with my series on spooky and creepy natural phenomenon, today we’re going to talk about Sleep Paralysis, which frequently shows up in ghost stories. Never heard of it? Let me explain.

You know when you go to update your computer, and it restarts four or five times, and it seems to get caught in a loop where it’s not really on and functioning, but it’s not turned off, either? 

That’s your brain during sleep paralysis. Basically, your brain gets stuck between sleeping and waking. You can hear, see, and feel things around you, but you can’t move. This paralysis is a fail safe your brain employs to prevent you from acting out your dreams or sleep walking (obviously, it doesn’t work for everyone).

Frequently people report a feeling of weight on their chests, being watched, or extreme fear, anxiety, or dread. Because your brain isn’t shifting correctly from “neutral” to “drive”, it doesn’t process sensory information correctly. Shadows become dark figures with glowing eyes. The weight of your blanket on your arm feels like a hand reaching out to grab you. And that tension in your chest becomes a little demon waiting to pull out your eyeballs. 

I find sleep paralysis to be a completely fascinating phenomenon, but I know just how terrifying it can be. I’ve only experienced it twice, once in college and once a few months ago. I don’t remember the more recent occasion all that well ironically, but I do remember the feeling of laying in bed and feeling as though Death–yes, capital D Death, complete with robe and scythe–was standing over me, and if I looked at it I would die. I managed to pull the blankets over my face and close my eyes (because OBVIOUSLY and Ikea comforter is the best protection against mythological creatures, right?). Eventually, I was able to calm down enough to go to sleep. I knew the fear was purely psychological. But that didn’t stop me from shaking. 

As terrifying as it sounds, it’s mostly harmless. About 40% of people experience it at some point, and it may be linked to genetics. Other factors that influence occurrences of sleep paralysis are lack or or changes to your sleep schedule, stress or mental illness, some medical conditions or medications, such as narcolepsy and ADHD meds, and even your sleeping position. Substance abuse can also cause it in some people. 

If it’s something that you find really troublesome, if it triggers anxiety, interferes with your sleep, or happens frequently, you can get treatment from your doctor, who will look at your medications and probably recommend a sleep study. They may also recommend mental health treatments, like antidepressants or speaking to a psychologist/therapist of some kind or seeking counseling. 

Further reading:
Web MD
Sleep Foundation
Sleep Cycle
Sleep Education
Live Science
Stanford Health

Like what you see? Check out the posts in the “Would This Kill Me in the 1800s?” series.

2 thoughts on “Sleep Paralysis”

  1. Well, that is creepy, because my wife and I were talking about sleep paralysis, just last night. She suffers from a hypnopompic form of parasomnia. She (and the officiate of our wedding) can seem fully awake, even carry on coherent conversations, and yet remember nothing of it, later. The result is frequent, funny stories. Stress seems to be the trigger, compounded by untreated bipolarity and (I strongly suspect) temporal lobe epilepsy.

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